JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — A cargo plane carrying an added load of unregistered people crashed Wednesday morning along the banks of the Nile River after taking off from South Sudan’s capital of Juba. The crash killed 36 people and left an infant clinging to life, South Sudan authorities said.
The Soviet-made Antonov plane, which had been bound for the Paloich oil fields in Upper Nile state, was registered in Tajikistan and belonged to Allied Services Limited, said Ateny Wek Ateny, a spokesman for South Sudanese President Salva Kiir.
Hours later, the smell of fuel permeated the crash site, 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) from Juba’s international airport. Wreckage from the plane was scattered in a bushy area on banks of the Nile with a few homes nearby. Its tail and part of the fuselage remained attached but the plane’s wings, propellers and front were completely smashed.
Thirty-six people were confirmed dead in the crash, according to both South Sudan’s minister for transportation, Kuong Danhier Gatluak, and Maju Hilary of the South Sudan Red Cross. Six of the plane’s crew members — five Armenians and a Russian — were among the dead, said Tigran Mkrtchian, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry.
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“We need heavy machinery to lift up to find out if there are other dead bodies under the wreckage of the plane,” Hilary said.
Gatluak said two passengers were pulled alive from the wreckage, an infant as well as an adult who later died, and the search for more bodies was ongoing.
Gatluak said officials don’t know how many people were on the plane because they do not have the passenger manifest yet. He said officials are looking for the black box as “there’s no survivor that could tell us” what happened aboard the plane.
The U.N. mission said it was sending personnel to help the search operation.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw nearly two dozen bodies, including those of women and children.
Bashir Yashin, who saw the plane come down sometime after 8 a.m., said he first thought it might crash into a nearby market before the pilot apparently diverted it. Another witness, Angelo Kenyi, said a baby and an elderly woman were pulled out alive.
There was conflicting information about who the dead were. Ateny, the presidential spokesman, said 10 people on the ground were killed but witnesses and emergency workers said no one had been in the swampy plot when the plane crashed.
It’s common for security forces to put family members on cargo planes to Paloich even if they are not on the manifest, according to Kenyi Galla, assistant operations manager for Combined Air Services, a company that operates chartered flights across South Sudan.
“Normally (this flight) used to carry 12 people, but the problem is they added more people,” he said. “This plane is just for cargo, not for passengers. It was just chartered for goods.”
The doomed flight was not chartered by his company, Galla said.
The Russian television channel LifeNews quoted an unnamed source at the Russian aviation agency as saying the plane appeared to have been overloaded and was made in the Soviet Union in 1971.
Stephen Warikozi, head of the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, said an investigation has opened into the cause of the crash.
Many parts of South Sudan, which became an independent nation in 2011, have been hit by violence since December 2013, with government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir battling rebels led by his former deputy, Riek Machar. Fighting persists despite a peace agreement signed in August.
The war first broke out in Juba but for many months the capital has been peaceful.
AP writers Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, and Avet Demourian in Yerevan, Armenia, contributed to this report.